Orangutan In/Visibilities: a digital exhibition

The critically endangered orangutan is one of the world’s most prominent and visible animals. Now found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, it has become a powerful international symbol of extinction—a charismatic yet tragic reminder of the scale and speed of biodiversity loss across the planet.

Orangutans are especially popular in the Global North (e.g. Europe, North America), where they form part of a larger visual ensemble surrounding ideas of endangered species, rainforests, biodiversity loss and ethical consumption. Images of orphaned baby orangutans, for example, have alerted Western consumers to the environmental risks posed by palm oil—a common ingredient in many foods and household products. Similarly, haunting footage of orangutans falling victim to logging or forest fires has drawn international attention to the rapid, extensive transformations of Bornean and Sumatran rainforests in recent decades.

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But these images only reveal part of a much larger and more complex story about orangutan extinction, human-orangutan relations, and orangutan conservation—the sprawling global network of policymakers, scientists, NGOs and other parties that has emerged to save the orangutan. In this exhibition, we highlight some of other less prominent parts of this story, notably the (often unseen) human and nonhuman structures and processes that shape orangutan conservation. Our central questions are: What does orangutan conservation look like when it does not centre the orangutan? And how might tracing its in/visibilities prompt us to reimagine both human-orangutan relations and conservation itself?

This exhibition is divided into four themed galleries: Protocols, Mediation and Representation, Expertise and Labour, and Contestation and Collaboration. Protocols sheds light on the research, policymaking and bureaucratic processes that generate scientific knowledge of orangutans and strategies for conserving them, while also regulating how conservation is carried out on the ground. Mediation and Representation explores how representations of orangutans, extinction and conservation are translated, deployed or indeed ignored in different settings. Expertise and Labour reveals the many different kinds of skills, knowledge and work that go into orangutan conservation—especially those that are not always credited or recognized. Finally, Collaboration and Contestation looks at the human and nonhuman partnerships, alliances, conflicts, and tensions through which orangutan conservation plays out in specific settings.

Each of these categories tells visual stories about the work, relations, emotions, tensions, and alliances that make orangutan conservation tick—or fail to—on the ground. Some of them gesture towards stories that cannot or should not be revealed; others deliberately seek to highlight, and thus give credit to, otherwise unseen players. By drawing together this selection of images and artefacts, we hope to create a more nuanced picture of orangutan conservation—shedding light not only on its usually invisible dimensions, but also on the politics, practices and processes that determine what does and doesn’t become visible in the story of the orangutan.

Galleries

Protocols

Mediation and Representation

Expertise and Labour

Collaboration and Contestation

Credits and Acknowledgements

Curated by Liana Chua, Hannah Fair, Viola Schreer, Anna Stępień, Paul Hasan Thung, with further contributions from Marc Ancrenaz (HUTAN), Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren (Woodland Park Zoo), Helen Morrogh-Bernard and Bernat Ripoll Capilla (Borneo Nature Foundation), International Animal Rescue Indonesia, Yayasan Orangutan Sumatera Lestari-Orangutan Information Centre (Sumatra, Indonesia), Julie Sherman (Wildlife Futures) and Yayasan Palung (West Kalimantan, Indonesia). Translated into Bahasa Indonesia by Rut Dini Prasti H. and edited by Lestari Nugraheni.

Exhibition design by Jam Design Associates and Platform Twenty Limited.

This exhibition has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 758494. We are also grateful to the Arcus Foundation and Brunel University London for funding related parts of our research. Further thanks go to Candie Furber for her input and extensive administrative support, to Jade Warrington and Dave Jones for all their patience and support with the exhibition design, as well as to Bernat Ripoll Capilla, Helen Morrogh-Bernard, Erik Meijaard, Edi Rahman, and Heribertus Suciadi, Orangutan Foundation UK.

Thanks to RISTEK and our research counterparts, Universitas Muhammadiyah Palangkaraya, Universitas Sumatera Utara and Universitas Indonesia, for their help and support.

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